PCC censures Hull Daily Mail over web-porn stories

The Press Complaints Commission has upheld an accuracy complaint against the Hull Daily Mail over articles describing a local web publisher’s links to the porn industry.

The press watchdog agreed with Paul Smith’s complaint that a series of stories about him were misleading, however it rejected a series of further complaints made against the regional newspaper.

Smith complained to the PCC over three stories, headlined “Town website publisher’s porn business”, “The sickening porn behind this man’s veil of respectability” and “Town website: the sordid truth”, published in March this year.

The articles reported that Smith – who published a community website promoted by the local council – had also “designed thousands of hardcore pornography websites”.

The article said Smith had designed 3,991 porn websites and “owns the domain names to almost 4,000”.

Smith told the PCC he had only designed a hundred or so websites, including some adult sites, and had bought just over 100 domains, nearly half of which were dormant.

The newspaper told the PCC that at the time of its investigation a web registration search showed that Smith owned 3,991 domains under the name Smiths Media Solutions, the majority of which could be categorised as adult.

Following publication of the articles, the newspaper told the PCC, the relevant server was disconnected and it was unable to prove this figure conclusively.

The precise claim about 3,991 sites was put to Smith before publication, the paper told the PCC, adding that he was unable to confirm the number of sites in which he was involved and that he had not initially denied the allegation.

The PCC said it accepted there was a “legitimate public interest” in the paper examining Smith’s business activities, given his role in publishing a local community website.

But such high-profile scrutiny carried with it the responsibility to be accurate, the commission said as it published its decision today.

The ruling said it was not in dispute that Smith had designed some pornographic websites in the past and owned a substantial number of domain names.

However, the PCC ruled that the newspaper had not been able to corroborate “the significant claims that the complainant had ‘designed thousands’ of such sites – as many as 3,991 – or owned the domain names to ‘almost 4000 sites'”.

Upholding Smith’s complaint on the grounds of accuracy, the PCC said: “These were crucial allegations and the newspaper should have been able to substantiate them fully, and been in a position to provide concrete evidence to the PCC.

“Based on the available material, the commission considered that readers would have been misled as to the scale of the complainant’s involvement in adult websites.”

The PCC rejected further complaints over the accuracy of one of the articles’ headlines and the methods the paper employed to uncover the story.

Smith had protested to the PCC that the paper had breached clauses of the Editors Code dealing with privacy, clandestine devices and subterfuge, arguing that its reporter had misrepresented her identity to him – including creating a bogus Facebook page – when researching the story. She later revealed her true identity when she met him in person.

The PCC ruled the newspaper’s public interest defence was justifiable on this occasion.

“There was no undercover filming or inappropriate access to private information about the complainant,” the PCC ruled.

“The commission was satisfied that the public interest argument advanced by the newspaper…justified the employment of such mild subterfuge in this case.

“It considered that the newspaper could legitimately claim that this method was necessary to obtain the information, believing that the complainant may not have been forthcoming to a direct journalistic approach about his willingness to consider designing a website for an escort.”

LINKS:

Hull Daily Mail reveals porn industry links of local news website creator

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